TrueHoop: Oklahoma City Thunder

Durant sizes up the new KDs

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
8:11
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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For a guy with his own line of signature shoes, Kevin Durant sure spends a lot of time wearing retro Air Jordans. The sneakerhead side of Durant came out Thursday, because he didn’t just drop the proverbial other shoe following Paul George's horrific injury. By withdrawing from the U.S. men's national team, Durant dropped a pair of still-in-the-box kicks, addressing both the impact of George's injury and the notion of championship windows.

Both were fair game when George broke his leg in a USA Basketball exhibition game last week. We wondered if it would shock the red, white and blue out of other players, and we also wondered whether this was the end of the Indiana Pacers' championship pursuit. The Pacers have already lost Lance Stephenson, their toughest competitor in the 2014 playoffs. George could miss next season, and who knows how much stronger the other Eastern Conference teams will be in 2015-16. The only Pacers currently under contract for 2016-17 are George and George Hill. It's quite possible that Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals represented the pinnacle of these Pacers as we've known them.

Maybe Durant is stirred by the fear that the same could be said of his Oklahoma City Thunder team that won Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals. He didn't know that would be James Harden's final series in a Thunder uniform. He couldn’t have guessed that Russell Westbrook would be lost after two games in the 2013 playoffs or that Serge Ibaka would miss the first two games of the 2014 Western Conference finals.

Here's what Durant does know for sure: He has two more years on his contract, Westbrook and Ibaka have three more, and next summer Reggie Jackson will command far more than the $2.3 million he'll make this season. There are tangible limits to the Thunder future that once seemed to stretch out like the Oklahoma plains. This season could very well be Durant's best opportunity to win a championship with this group. Or ever.

The Thunder split the four playoff games in which Ibaka played against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. The players who accounted for 89 percent of Oklahoma City's points in that series are returning. Durant is the reigning Most Valuable Player. There's no promise that the circumstances will ever be better.

So, for the first time on the national stage, Durant put himself first. In the USA Basketball news release, he said, "I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season."

Although he didn’t cite George's injury, the timing of this move is telling. It’s not as if he just looked at the schedule and saw there'd be up to five more weeks of work. He knew the level of commitment going in. And this is from a guy who seems indefatigable in the summers, showing up to play anywhere there's a rim and a net.

Durant has already logged two runs with the national team, competing in the 2010 world championships and the 2012 Olympics. He won a gold medal both times. His account is paid up. And all of that time in the casino during Team USA training camps in Las Vegas has taught him the wisdom of leaving the table when the chips are stacked in your favor. He has missed a total of only five games the past five seasons; no need to add unnecessary risk to that run of durability.

Durant doesn't want what happened to Paul George -- or even worse, what could happen to Paul George -- to happen to him.

Durant unlikely to follow LeBron's lead

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
5:07
PM ET
Young By Royce Young
ESPN.com
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videoKevin Durant is in Las Vegas preparing for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and all anyone wants to ask him about is 2016.

Durant is saying all the right things, as you might expect, lauding LeBron James' "classy" return to Cleveland, saying he loves Oklahoma City while doing his best to keep the door slightly open for a potential exit. But the questions will only multiply from here. Especially now that James’ homecoming has, in the eyes of some, laid the groundwork for Durant to make a similar move to his hometown of Washington, D.C. In an interview with Darren Rovell, Durant said the speculation has forced him to delete the Twitter app from his phone.

But now, two years away from when Durant will actually be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, plenty of assumptions are being made about the Thunder forward and his future.

Two things about that:

1) Unlike LeBron, who drew all sorts of ire for his Miami move, Durant's approval rating hasn’t wavered. He doesn't need a homecoming to change public perception or increase his branding potential.

2) Durant wants to define his career himself, not be the guy to do what LeBron did. The two are friendly rivals, playing with immense mutual respect, but Durant's pending decision will be his alone. He alluded to as much in his MVP speech:

"When they told me I was going to win this prestigious award, the first thing I did was go to YouTube, and I looked at what LeBron James said a few years ago and what Derrick Rose said,” Durant said. “And I just tried to change it up a little bit. I wanted to come here and hit everybody in the face with what I said so they could feel it. I wanted to leave my mark.”

Durant does love his hometown. In that same speech, he mentioned growing up in Prince George "P.G." County. He has "Maryland" tattooed in giant letters across the top of his back. He has the Washington Nationals logo tattooed above his belly button. He wears a snakeskin-billed Redskins hat after most games. He knows where he's from. He loves where he's from.

But that doesn't necessarily mean he wants to play basketball there. When Durant picked a college in 2007, he didn't stay close to home at Georgetown, or Maryland or Virginia, or even North Carolina. He chose Texas, some 1,500 miles away. He may not be a boisterous leader, but he’s also not one to follow.

“I’m going to do what’s best for me,” Durant told reporters in Vegas. “It’s hard to talk about that right now when I’ve got two years left in Oklahoma City. I’m just going to focus on that. I’m not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does.”

Durant's top priority has always been winning, and with the Thunder, he's done an incredible amount of it. In the past four seasons, he's won about 75 percent of his games, been to the Western Conference finals three times and made one trip to the NBA Finals. Basketball is what drives Durant most. He’s a junkie who can't keep himself off a court. While other Team USA stars have bowed out of the World Cup, Durant is, predictably, ready to go. His decision will likely come down to where he can win next, not where he has won, but the Thunder have two years to prove that their franchise offers the best opportunity to do just that.

You can’t dismiss the emotional connection Durant has built in Oklahoma City, either. D.C. may be home, but Durant has spent his first seven NBA seasons with the Thunder, growing up from a skinny kid who couldn't bench 185 pounds to the league's MVP. Durant often references the team's 3-29 start to the 2008-09 season, a touchstone for him and the franchise, and those kinds of moments are something only the Thunder have had with him.

Over the next two years, the variables leading to Durant's choice will pile up. The bulk of the factors that will influence his decision most haven't even happened yet. Things will change, and so will he. Durant recently told reporters that the reason he signed a five-year max deal with no opt-out in the final year was because he was young and didn't know any better. He's a different person now than he was then.

He'll be a different one in 2016. A man with different goals, different motivations, different desires.

But winning will still be most important to him. The basketball will be the only thing that he follows.

Josh Huestis, first stashed domestic pick?

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
9:22
PM ET
Young By Royce Young
ESPN.com
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Josh HuestisMike Stobe/Getty ImagesWhen the Thunder selected Josh Huestis in the first round, they had an innovative plan in mind.
Nobody saw it coming when the Oklahoma City Thunder selected Stanford forward Josh Huestis with the 29th overall pick in last month's draft.

Except, apparently, Josh Huestis.

As noted by Zach Lowe, Huestis and his agent, Mitchell Butler, had a prearranged agreement with the Thunder before the draft. The Thunder would take him with the No. 29 pick in the 2014 draft, but Huestis wouldn't sign his guaranteed rookie contract.

Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman laid out the parameters of the innovative agreement last week. Projected by all accounts to be a second-round pick, Huestis elected to become a bit of a draft pioneer, the NBA's first domestic draft-and-stash player. He would leave his rookie contract unsigned, a deal that would pay him somewhere between $750,000 and $900,000, to sign with the Thunder's D-League affiliate instead. Then in a year or two Huestis would, presumably, sign his rookie deal.

It was a clever idea by one of the most forward-thinking front offices in the league. Huestis isn't exactly NBA-ready, but he could potentially be a future replacement for Thabo Sefolosha, who signed with the Atlanta Hawks this offseason. By not signing him immediately, the Thunder aren't clogging a roster spot with a player they won't use and aren't eating up almost a million bucks of cap space on him. And better yet, it stops the clock on Huestis' rookie deal, which would have been only a year behind the one signed by Andre Roberson, a player with similar skills, last season.

Smart, right? The real question is this: Was all this legal, or is Sam Presti the NBA's Wolf of Wall Street?

A pre-draft arrangement like this isn't against the rules, as there are ample amounts of gray area within which to operate. But it's certainly against the spirit of the draft, as Tom Ziller of SB Nation notes. And because of it, one would think the National Basketball Players Association has some interest in this situation. On the surface of this is a first-round pick willingly giving up his guaranteed first-round rookie-scale deal, which locks him into roughly almost $2 million over the next two years and up to $5 million over the next five, for a $25,000 D-League contract.

Why would Huestis agree to this? Because of the potential guarantee of an NBA contract, and thereby bigger overall earnings. By all accounts, it was extremely unlikely that Huestis would be picked in the first round and find himself with a guaranteed deal. He was headed for the second round and was probably going to the D-League regardless. So instead of having to work himself into a future NBA deal, he's simply delaying it. In a roundabout way, it gave him control to pick the team he wanted, and presents him with something he likely wouldn't have otherwise had -- an actual NBA deal. Per his agent, Huestis had interest in doing this only with either the Thunder or Spurs. So think of it like a college grad who really wants to work at Google deciding to take an unpaid internship out of college, turning down a more lucrative offer with a company he didn't think he'd fit as well with.

Now, there are ample amounts of risk in this move for Huestis. What if he blows out his knee or has some kind of medical issue that derails his career? But there was also risk going the other way, getting picked by the wrong team in the second round and watching his career slip away for a shot at a $500,000 nonguaranteed contract.

[+] EnlargeJosh Huestis
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Josh Huestis suited up for OKC in the Orlando Summer League. Is the D-League his next stop?
It's a complicated situation that might be a win-win for both the Thunder and Huestis, but there should be concern with the precedent it could set. Front offices are prone to deception. They promise players they'll select them in the first round if they leave college early. They tell them not to work out for other teams. They tell them they're going to take them no matter what, and then don't. With the way the Thunder operate, regardless of what happens, they're likely to uphold the agreement with Huestis. But would all 29 other teams? At some point, some prospect is sure to get burned.

This isn't the first time Presti persuaded a late first-round pick to work with him. Roberson, the 26th overall pick, signed his rookie deal at 80 percent of its worth last season, reducing the cap hit by a couple hundred thousand dollars. Again, savvy stuff from the Thunder, who are pinching every penny possible in order to avoid the luxury tax for as long as possible. But there's also the unseemly aspect of an organization pulling in almost $30 million in profit strong-arming prospects to take less money.

The obvious question: Why not just take Huestis in the second round if this was the plan? The Thunder didn't have a second-round pick until they bought No. 55 and selected Semaj Christon. Huestis was a surprise pick at 29 to start with, so unless there was a major concern of the Spurs snatching him at 30, why not trade that 29th pick to drop to 31 or 32 and snag Huestis at a spot where his contract wasn't guaranteed? That's what the Thunder did with Grant Jerrett last season and now he has a multiyear deal signed with the team. Problem is, the Thunder would've been rolling the dice on losing a player they liked to someone else. Second-round picks have their own value because the contracts aren't guaranteed. We can assume a team at 31-35 would've bit to move up to 29, but those teams may not have wanted a guaranteed rookie deal on their books either.

Plenty of first-round picks have opted not to sign their first-round deals. In all of those cases, though, they were international draft-and-stash moves, like Serge Ibaka, who stayed an extra season in Spain after being taken 24th overall. The difference between those type of moves and Huestis is that an international player is still making a hefty salary, certainly more than a D-Leaguer's $25,000 a year.

The real issue here isn't with the Thunder or Huestis, it's with the D-League-NBA relationship. The league desperately wants to grow its developmental ground, but with a lot of teams not owning their own affiliates outright and having a one-to-one relationship, there's not enough synergy or continuity. The Thunder have been on the forefront of utilizing their D-League team, but with backward roster restrictions in place, it creates the need to get creative.

The fixes are obvious. One, as Ziller pointed out, is to make a provisional 16th roster spot, one that doesn't count against your cap. Another is more complicated, but probably necessary anyway: Raise D-League wages. If the NBA wants the D-League to become more of a true minor league system, with teams utilizing it as an actual developmental tool, players would need to be able to earn legitimate money there. Probably never to the extent international guys do for CSKA Moscow or Besiktas or whoever, but at least provide a decent financial alternative.

The arrangement between the Thunder and Huestis is not breaking the rules, per se, and it's certainly an advantageous move for the Thunder to pull, and really, good for Huestis. Potentially.

But it could set a poor precedent and open a slippery slope as front offices try to manipulate the cap as much as possible, thereby hurting impressionable players desperate for an NBA contract. Remember: Chandler Parsons was a second-round pick, and after making a couple million dollars, just signed with the Mavericks for $46 million over three years. What the Thunder and Huestis have engineered all works in theory, so long as owners and front offices follow through. But nothing is guaranteed when it comes to this stuff. Well, except for first-round contracts. Or at least they were supposed to be.

What KD can learn from LeBron's decision

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
10:22
AM ET
Young By Royce Young
ESPN.com
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Kevin Durant and LeBron JamesIssac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant faces his own decision in 2016 when he is slated to become a free agent.
Back in 2010, as LeBron James readied to shake the basketball world with Decision 1.0, Kevin Durant had already made and announced his via a simple typo'd tweet.

Durant was cast as a protagonist for the digital age, a star displaying the "right way" to announce a career choice, while James found himself somewhere between He Who Must Not Be Named and King Joffrey on the likability scale.

It was inevitable to compare and contrast. James left; Durant stayed. James took his talents somewhere on television; Durant stayed put in 140 characters or less. There was a certain charm to the misspelling -- "extension" as "exstension" -- that illustrated how little premeditation Durant had seemed to invest, while James had everything meticulously orchestrated for his one-hour special.

What was lost, though, is that Durant actually made the same choice James did some four years earlier. Durant was coming off his rookie scale deal and did what virtually every player in his position does: take a maximum extension. Nobody turns down that money at that time.

Still, there was one big difference between the two extensions. James signed his in 2006 for three years, a strategic financial move that would make him a free agent after seven seasons, which allowed him to get a max at 30 percent rather than 25. Durant, on the other hand, specifically requested there be no early opt-out. This locked him in for the full five years.

Yet even with the gesture -- and all of the nice things he has said about the team and Oklahoma City -- as soon as Durant hit "send" on that tweet, the clock started ticking toward his next decision, the actual decision, the one he makes in 2016 as an unrestricted free agent.

James spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland, falling short of a championship seven times. Durant will spend his first nine seasons with the Thunder franchise and thus far has failed seven times to reach the ultimate goal. Should the Thunder fall short the next two seasons, the assumption is Durant will depart as James did, even if the optics are different.

But there's something for Durant to learn from Decision 2.0. James' choice was painted primarily as a homecoming story, the prodigal son returning to right his wrongs. All true, no doubt. Except there's another, more practical reason he picked Cleveland: sustainability.

In some ways, his departure is what put the Cavaliers in the position to bring him back, meaning they got so bad that they piled up young talent and assets. When James turns 34, Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011, will be 26. Andrew Wiggins, the 2014 No. 1 overall draft pick, will be just 23. The Cavs provide an opportunity for James to chase a championship for his hometown, and do it over and over again for the next decade. In a lot of ways, James found his Thunder.

Oklahoma City's buzzword from day one has been sustainability, and for the past four years, it has sustained one hell of a run. A winning percentage near .750, three trips to the Western Conference finals, and one to the Finals. In James' final four seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs won 68 percent of their games, made two conference finals appearances, and one in the NBA Finals. For both, there is a common, painful denominator: no championship.

For Durant, when the time comes to make his choice in 2016, it's not going to be about if he won a championship. It's about where he can win his next championship. We can't be entirely sure that had the Cavs won a title with James before 2010 that he would've stayed. We can assume, but we can't know.

That roster, with Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams and Delonte West and Shaquille O'Neal, wasn't built to contend for a decade. It was built to try to appease James on a year-by-year basis. Durant will be 27 when he signs his next contract somewhere, and that decision will be informed by the future, not the past.

Teams are already clearing space to have their pitch lined up for Durant. The Knicks have about $30 million in committed salary for 2016-17, the Nets $6.3 million. The Wizards owe $34.8 million, enough room to fit a max for Durant. The Lakers don’t have a single penny committed. The Thunder have $30.1 million committed, but that’s also their advantage -- because it’s for Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.

The likely market for 2016 doesn’t include a Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade out there for Durant to team with. Unless Durant wants to play with James, or Kevin Love exercises his player option, the best available free agents in summer 2016 are Dwight Howard (who will be 30), Deron Williams (who will be 32) and Al Horford (who will be 30).

Westbrook will be just 27; Ibaka will be 26.

There is the fact Durant plays in one of the league’s smallest markets and the financial realities that come with that. The Thunder have actively resisted dipping into the luxury tax, which reaffirms the perception that ownership is cheap and unwilling to spend for a contender (this is where you bring up the James Harden trade).

The reality is the team is planning for the future, avoiding years of the luxury tax that would place them as repeat offenders in 2016 and 2017, when they have to re-sign their core. Over-extending for the present is dangerous, and as the Thunder have harshly been forced to learn the past two postseasons with injuries to key players, there are no guarantees. “Going for it” can often only complicate your future.

Maybe Durant will be drawn back home like James, or maybe he'll want the big lights and big pressure of bringing a championship to New York. But what he'll really want is the best possible chance to win. And as long as the Thunder can provide that better than anyone else, his next decision will be just as simple as his first.

Another summer on the sidelines?

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
10:50
AM ET
Young By Royce Young
ESPN.com
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DurantLayne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesWill Kevin Durant have the same patience Thunder GM Sam Presti has shown in free agency?
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, July has traditionally meant a month of light bookkeeping and a jaunt to summer league. While other teams around the league catch transactional fever, the Thunder operate with a fervent reluctance to chasing available players.

Some have characterized that as a small-market franchise being stereotypically cheap. But the reality is there has rarely been a potential move that made sense to act upon. The Thunder are rigid about their core values, and free-agent discernment is prominent among them.

Here’s general manager Sam Presti’s free-agent history (not counting 10-day contracts):

  • Signed C.J. Miles to an offer sheet in 2008 (Utah matched)
  • Signed Nenad Krstic in December 2008
  • Signed Kevin Ollie in 2009
  • Signed Royal Ivey in 2010
  • Signed Derek Fisher in March 2012
  • Signed Hasheem Thabeet in 2013
  • Signed Derek Fisher in February 2013
  • Signed Derek Fisher in July 2013
  • Signed Caron Butler in March 2014

That’s it. That’s all of it.

Presti has historically spent to keep the players he either drafted or acquired. There’s more control, especially financially, in building a roster away from free-market competition.

This summer feels different. With league revenues soaring, the luxury tax -- a well-known enemy for the Thunder -- has unexpectedly climbed to around $77 million. With 12 guaranteed contracts adding up to $69,677,141 (not counting player bonuses), the Thunder have a greater ability to crack the checkbook and, for the first time ever really, a need to do so.

Thabo Sefolosha, the team’s starting shooting guard since 2009, is an unrestricted free agent and is almost a lock to sign elsewhere. Fisher is now the head coach of the Knicks. Butler, a late-season addition, surely isn’t returning. That’s two rotation spots, and one starting job, vacant on a contending team that’s clawing on the wall to break through. The draft isn’t really a place to address present needs -- at least not all of them -- as the Thunder once again kept the future in focus by drafting forward Mitch McGary, a likely successor to 33-year-old Nick Collison, and Josh Huestis, a potential wing stopper in the Sefolosha mold.

Then there’s the issue of Reggie Jackson. The Thunder desperately want to keep him, and with Jackson eligible for an extension this summer, they’re intent on avoiding another James Harden situation. Presti already has said he hasn’t and won’t give any consideration to trading Jackson, but obviously that’s not set in stone until Jackson’s name is signed on a contract. If a deal isn’t executed before October, he’ll hit restricted free agency, a place no Thunder youngster has ever reached.

But Presti doesn’t always operate within the confines of general assumption. The market isn’t exactly saturated with helpful players, and look no further than bit player Jodie Meeks getting a reported $19.5 million over three years from the Detroit Pistons to see why Presti actively resists playing the free-agent game.

Instead, he has meticulously assembled a roster that parlays present into future at all times. As Kendrick Perkins enters the final year of a tumultuous contract, 20-year-old bruiser Steven Adams is waiting to step in. As Sefolosha likely jettisons off somewhere else, Andre Roberson, a 6-foot-7 guard with enough wingspan to make Jay Bilas pass out, is potentially a replacement. As Butler and Fisher move on, Jeremy Lamb enters his third season after showing bright signs before a late-season swoon amplified by Butler’s signing.

Trusting internal development isn’t splashy. It doesn’t make any July headlines. And it certainly frustrates fans and confuses observers as opposing teams try to load up each summer. They think the Thunder are being too conservative, unwilling to take advantage of a clear window of opportunity presented by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s general awesomeness. Kind of hard to argue with that.

Though in some ways, Presti does acquire new players every summer. It’s just that you can’t restage news conferences for players you already have under contract. The idea within the Thunder is pretty simple: Build a young roster and expect its members to come back better in October. Adams improved game by game last season, capping it with an incredibly impressive double-double in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Lamb completed what was essentially his first full season as a regular, posting per-36-minute numbers of 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists, 43.2 percent shooting. (For fun, Harden’s second season, per 36 minutes: 16.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 43.6 percent shooting). Perry Jones III got seven starts. Roberson started 16 games last season and with him on the floor, the Thunder allowed 99.3 points per 100 possessions.

When you look at the construction of the roster, the teams sits more in a position of strength than reeking of desperation to fill significant structural needs. The Thunder already have a superstar, a co-superstar, a shot-blocking monster who shoots almost 50 percent from midrange and a dynamic bench option. They have intriguing youth and hold additional assets. If Presti lacked those things, he would have been roaming the aisles of the NBA swap meet searching for them just like other GMs. There are pieces needed on the periphery, but in terms of flashy signings, the Thunder are in a good place. It allows Presti to be selective, and for lack of a better word, stingy.

Signing players for the sake of it can actually compress your roster, too. Additions don’t always actually add. Look at the San Antonio Spurs. After losing Gary Neal in free agency, they didn’t rush to sign a new backup point guard. They trusted in their internal structure, allowing Patty Mills an opportunity. If Lamb is ever going to sniff his potential and become anything more than some dude the Thunder got for James Harden, he actually has to, you know, play.

Relying on youth and development does come with risk, because you’re putting unproven players in a position to produce for a team with title hopes. But consider this: The Thunder allowed 78.0 points per 100 possessions with a net rating of plus-24.9 in nine games last season with a starting five of Westbrook, Roberson, Durant, Ibaka and Adams. The sample size is obviously small, but there might be enough there for Presti to maintain his picky free-agent nature and trust in what he already has.

The big question, though, is how Durant will feel about all this. He probably won’t appreciate another quiet summer, especially after last July ended with the Thunder coming up empty-handed on a number of players he wanted. Durant grew frustrated as the Thunder whiffed on Dorell Wright, Francisco Garcia and Mike Miller, a player he personally recruited. All OKC ended up with was Fisher, for a third time. Will free agents avoiding Oklahoma City combined with the Thunder’s selective shopping be something on his mind in 2016, when he’s set to hit the free-agent market himself?

Maybe, but Presti can’t operate under the the assumption that some arbitrary clock is ticking toward 2016. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Thunder have avoided the luxury tax vigorously, but not to save dollars in the present. Their hyper-diligence stems from a tangible fear of the repeater tax, an escalator set into motion if a team crosses the threshold three out of four years. So as 2016 approaches, Presti is putting together a plan to not just re-sign Durant, but also Westbrook and Ibaka a year after. Overextending now and compromising the future roster is step one to losing your cornerstone player. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers. Durant may leave the Thunder if they fail the next two seasons, but that’s his decision. Nothing says he’d stay even if they won a title, or two.

Still, the Thunder will be semi-active this July. They’ll make calls, have meetings, probably make some offers. Probably sign a player or two. But they’re shopping in the bargain bin. They aren’t breaking over the tax this season, nor are they likely to hit the “apron” that locks them into a hard cap (about $4 million away). That commitment to the plan, unwavering despite a changing landscape, paints Presti as stubborn to some, but the identity and culture he has created within the organization is something a lot of other franchises are trying to mimic. The Thunder are really good. But the past three seasons, they haven’t been quite good enough. Question is, what’s it going to take to close that gap, or better yet, what’s it going to cost?

Patience is a virtue for young Thunder

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
10:43
AM ET
Young By Royce Young
ESPN.com
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Tim Duncan, Kevin DurantNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant may not have a title, but the Spurs have shown that the long game is the one to play.

After the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated a few weeks ago, you could hear whispers of closing windows and ticking clocks. Another year gone by, another empty season. Is it possible the Thunder were starting to run out of chances? With this much talent, it's title-or-bust, right?

Fans are fickle, fans are frustrated and, above all, fans are impatient. But the Thunder need to be the opposite.

"What clock? There's no clock," Russell Westbrook said at the Thunder's exit interviews on June 1. "I don't believe in saying the time is closing. We have a lot of guys on this team capable of making things happen and our organization has done a great job of putting us in the position to be able win the championship every season. And once it gets to that point, it's on us to make it happen."

Look at the landscape. The Spurs just roared to an incredible championship, but don't forget: The Thunder have had that team's number for a while. They were never able to recover from Serge Ibaka missing the opening two games of the series, but the Thunder were effectively one Manu Ginobili miss away from a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. The idea that a breakthrough will never come, or that the gap between the Spurs and Thunder is widening, is misguided.

Theoretically, San Antonio will at some point ride off into the sunset. It's not going to be this summer, as the Spurs' principals have all indicated they're ready to come back next season. Then there's Miami, which had every blemish exposed over the past couple of weeks. The Heat won 54 games in the regular season and struggled with consistency issues that we all excused as coasting (in hindsight, they were signal flares).

Even assuming their big three returns, the Heat's future looks iffy. They'll have LeBron James, which is the best possible start you can have to building a contender. But we can all see the hologram dragging around that looks like Dwyane Wade. And Chris Bosh, while absolutely elite, isn't enough on his own to compensate for an aging roster of spare parts.

The Heat could rebuild in a hurry, though, as each of its three stars has an opt-out clause he can exercise this summer. There's talk of Carmelo Anthony, but if the big three were willing to take those pay cuts, the better plan is to use that $14 million or so on two or three good players. That's a reloaded roster. Then again, the market is a bit watered down in terms of impact players to fill out eight or nine spots. The Heat don't have youth, and they don't have many affordable assets.

Tim Duncan and the Spurs have always played the long game, putting a top-tier contender on the floor year in and year out. Build the fortune methodically with a good base and smart investments. Some seasons they finished on top. Others they didn't. But over thepast 15 seasons, that window has constantly remained wide open. The Heat's, though, is in danger of slamming shut.

If you're the Thunder, which blueprint would you rather follow? Sustained excellence, or a flourish of potentially abbreviated prominence?

"There was not one season since I'm in the NBA that I really didn't truly believe that we could have won it," Ginobili said after the Spurs' Finals win in Game 5. "Every year we were up there. You know, sometimes we were No. 1 and we lost in the first round. Some other times we were seventh and we had a shot at winning it. But playing with the teammates I've always played, coached by the guy that is coaching us, I always felt that we had a shot, and I truly never believed it was the last shot. Even last year, after that tough blow and that tough series, Game 6 especially, I always believed that we had a shot coming back at this stage."

The Thunder have already enjoyed an incredible run of success. Over the past five seasons, they've won almost 70 percent of their games, grabbed four consecutive division titles, been in three of the past four Western Conference finals and made one NBA Finals trip. Four of their past five postseason exits were at the hands of the eventual champs, with the outlier being Westbrook's injury in 2013. The Thunder are playing the odds. Stay the course, stick to the plan and, eventually, you'll collect on those investments.

"The last four years, three trips to the Western Conference finals, a trip to the NBA Finals, and a year where Russell Westbrook got hurt and didn't even have a chance," Derek Fisher said of the Thunder during exit interviews. "In comparison to the Miami Heat, who have gone to four straight Finals and won two championships, and in comparison to the San Antonio Spurs, who have been one of the most consistent and well-run basketball teams and organizations in the last 15 or 20 years, nobody else is in that class, or even close to it, but this team."

This isn't some missive about running to stand still. While internal development is always the priority, two first-round draft picks plus some money to spend presents the Thunder an opportunity to improve. Patience is prudence, but that's meant for the future. Because, come October, the Thunder will be among a handful of teams that has a realistic chance to win the 2015 title.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesKevin Durant has a big decision to make in 2016 if the Thunder can't break through the next two years.
As we all know, though, the shadow of 2016 hangs above the team like a menacing wall cloud over the prairie. There's no guarantee that Kevin Durant will buy into this patient approach or see the bigger picture. There's an assumption that Durant might follow LeBron's path and search out a better situation if the Thunder don't present a championship in the next two seasons. There's a distinct contrast between San Antonio's' sustained success and Miami's title starter kit approach. When 2016 comes for Durant, that will effectively be his decision: Does he try to replicate the Spurs' way, or the Heat's way? And after watching the events of the past two weeks, isn't the Duncan path more appealing?

You can be sure that Durant will pay attention to that. Who knows what happens over the next two seasons, but come 2016, there won't be a team that can realistically offer Durant a core better than Westbrook and Ibaka (and they'll all still be 27 or younger). The Nets and Knicks will have mostly empty rosters in the summer of 2016, but outside the bright lights of the big city, what can they give Durant? Less money, for starters, and the free agent class that summer doesn't present any combination of players that will be anywhere near the class of Durant's running mates in OKC.

Though the Thunder have modeled themselves in the image of the Spurs, they've been forced into a few detours. Falling in the 2012 Finals was the first, then dealing James Harden was the second. Westbrook's injury came next, then Ibaka's. The Spurs' archetype has worked, because it has worked. Worked five times, in fact. The Thunder's blueprint has built a perennial contender, just one that hasn't paid anything off.

"This is the team that is scratching on the surface of the best in all of basketball in recent years and in the history of the game," said Fisher, now the New York Knicks coach. "It's not as far off as it seems in terms of how bad it hurts, but to get across that finish line, it's still a long stride there at the end."

That's the Thunder's plan, summarized. Presti wants a roster that can enter training camp every single season with a belief that it can win it all. You need breaks, you need some luck (like not having one of your best players getting hurt). But the only way you're going to hit the target is to keep having bullets to fire.

Duncan won his first championship at age 22. But his first title as the true alpha was in 2003, as David Robinson was playing the role Duncan is now. His age: 26 years old. Durant will turn 26 before next season.

There are other teams coming, no doubt. The Clippers should be better. So should the Warriors. The Rockets are aiming to add pieces. Someone is probably going to land Kevin Love. The Trail Blazers are building. And the Spurs still have an assigned seat at the table until they decide otherwise.

But the Thunder are where they need to be. In some ways, it's just about outlasting the phase, and letting the natural course of eras play out. The NBA has always been about taking turns, and while it's presumptuous to assume something as big as a championship is an inevitable prize for sticking around, the Thunder can spend the next decade-plus chasing a title year after year after year if everyone just continues to buy in. The Thunder have wanted to be the Spurs, and still can be -- so long as a few someones are willing to play the role of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

Kevin Durant has room for improvement

June, 1, 2014
Jun 1
6:05
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Kevin DurantTom Pennington/Getty ImagesWhile his game is sublime, it's not ridiculous to suggest Kevin Durant needs to work on some things.
Now, that strange time of year for criticizing players whose existence makes you feel lucky to be alive. Kevin Durant is certainly one of those guys who awes and inspires with his standard level of play. He’s as tall as a center, but moves like a guard. Actually, he might even move in a wholly different manner from anyone else. He floats out there on offense, in the best of senses. There’s an effortlessness to his shot and his handle that doesn’t seem possible for a man that size. Criticizing him really feels like kicking a gift horse in the mouth.

He has his flaws, though, flaws that helped swing the West finals in San Antonio’s favor. This isn’t to say such flaws are immutable, that this will be his curse for as long as he plays. This isn’t to say he’s “Mr. Unreliable.” One thing that’s been easy to rely on over the years is Durant’s ability to improve himself. It’s just that, yes, he was disappointing in these playoffs, and yes, his play revealed why, even though he deservedly won the MVP award from his regular-season exploits, he’s not yet better than LeBron James.

The difference between LeBron and Durant is the former really doesn’t have a weakness. Even if James slipped as a defensive force this season, at least some of that seemed to be a matter of effort, given his track record as a good defender. Defensively, Durant’s just bad, relative to his size and lengthy frame. A lot of that coordination and mobility we see on offense leaves him on the defensive end. He can be a wobbly defender, unsure of how much space to cede, unable to turn his hips when driven past.

To be fair, Durant does well defensively in the right matchup (He was good against Kawhi Leonard in this series, for example). The problems happen when he has to guard someone outside his comfort zone, like he frequently had to when OKC decided put Durant on Danny Green after Green’s Game 1 3-point outburst. In this matchup, Durant struggled to get around screens and fell asleep off the ball. Durant’s defense was a party to half of Green’s threes after Game 1. He also got blasted in the post by Boris Diaw in Game 2, causing the Thunder to largely abandon that strategy the rest of the way.

Offensively, Durant isn’t without flaws either. On balance, Durant was a better offensive player this season than LeBron was, but LeBron doesn’t feature weaknesses that can be exploited in playoff game-planning. If you take something away from James, he can do something else. Durant’s not quite there.

In this series Durant couldn’t wholly exploit his size advantage over Green when San Antonio put Leonard on Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was fine going against a larger player, flying past Leonard whenever the small forward so much as flinched. Durant struggled to get open against a quick defender, and struggled to dribble when played tight.

Right now he lacks the strength to assure himself post position. His handle is impressive for his size, but it’s not totally trustworthy in the way, say, LeBron’s is. Durant’s still reliant on others, he’s not great at getting open, and, though his passing has improved markedly over the years, he had a tendency towards tunnel vision in these playoffs.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a guy to LeBron James, and the Thunder are the envy of the league for having a younger player who’s at least comparable. Durant might very well be at the point LeBron was after the 2011 Finals. He’s a brilliant player, blessed with gifts you rarely see in a lifetime. He just hasn’t yet honed those gifts to the point of having a solid counter to whatever defense comes his way. I, for one, will enjoy the process of seeing him get there.

Resolving the problem

May, 29, 2014
May 29
2:16
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- One of the San Antonio Spurs’ most admirable qualities -- their resilience -- is now one of their most essential. The resolve that helped them bounce back from last year’s devastating loss in the NBA Finals and put themselves in position to grab another championship is what they’ll need to draw from in Thursday night’s Game 5 and the remainder of the Western Conference finals.

“They’re a real professional group,” Gregg Popovich said of his team. “There’s not going to be any team at this point in the playoffs that’s not professional and hungry and play hard, whether it’s a win or a loss.”

Popovich is right, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary the Indiana Pacers provide. His words are particularly accurate in the West, where it’s quite possible that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s athleticism advantage is more significant than the Spurs’ wisdom edge.

Yes, the lineup of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard -- the Spurs’ second-most used unit this season –- boasts a collective 725 playoff games of experience. But if Scott Brooks wanted to he could easily field a lineup with a total of 584 playoff games to their credit: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins.

The other day, Durant said that experience pays off in “knowing that we’ve been here before and knowing how we responded,” as well as saying “just knowing that a couple of possessions can switch the series up.” It’s the knowledge mixed with the athletic ability that makes them so dangerous. Popovich used Westbrook as an example of a player whose effort on the court reflected the stakes of Game 4.

Somehow the Spurs didn’t respond. At the moment, the Thunder have the edge in awareness.

“It’s important for us to have ... a sense of place, a sense of where we are and what kind of an opportunity we have here, and to what degree do we want to take advantage of it,” Popovich told reporters Wednesday. “These things don’t come along every year, to be in this kind of a position. I’m anxious to see what our approach is mentally to the game.”

The rest of us are curious to see whether Popovich has any significant adjustments for Game 5. He got everything he could have asked for from the lineup of Diaw, Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner and Aaron Baynes that he sent in once the Spurs fell hopelessly behind. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll see more of it, in any form.

“That was a situation that called for something like that,” Popovich said. “But I wouldn’t think that that’s going to be a staple.”

The Spurs could use a “stretch 4” to pull Ibaka away from the basket.They actually have one in Bonner, but he brings defensive concerns and has fallen out of the rotation in the past couple of years. His reduced usage can be traced back to the 2012 conference finals against the Thunder, when Bonner’s play increased from 11 minutes in Game 1 to 17 minutes in Game 2 to 23 minutes in Game 3, then dropped to two minutes in Game 4, 50 seconds in Game 5 to not playing at all in Game 6. Bonner’s time in the 2014 series has mostly come once the outcome has been decided.

Diaw has been the primary frontcourt sub, but he’s shooting only 27 percent on 3-pointers in the series.

The Spurs had some success running their offense through Duncan in the high post and letting him make passes to players cutting to the basket. He had assists on three of the Spurs’ eight baskets in the second quarter of Game 4. That’s another area they could explore.

The longer a series goes on, the less it becomes about adjustments. Radical change at this stage often reeks of desperation. It’s more about maximizing than countering, as Ginobili alluded.

“We’ve got to get to a point where we play much harder and much smarter,” he said. “We’ve got to attack quicker, don’t let their pressure bother us or get us on our heels.”

They’ve got to dip into their well of resolve.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 29, 2014
May 29
11:23
AM ET
Thorpe By David Thorpe
ESPN.com
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Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:



Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

The Spurs' next move

May, 28, 2014
May 28
1:52
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Suddenly, the Western Conference finals are too close to call. On San Antonio's bench, Gregg Popovich has a long history of making the right adjustments. David Thorpe examines the Spurs' options in Game 5.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 28, 2014
May 28
12:42
PM ET
Thorpe By David Thorpe
ESPN.com
Archive
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:



Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

Welcome Royce Young and Ethan Sherwood Strauss

May, 27, 2014
May 27
4:29
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
You probably already know their names, but now they're becoming key parts of our NBA team; ESPN.com has enhanced its NBA coverage with the addition of Royce Young and Ethan Sherwood Strauss. Both have deep roots in the TrueHoop Network and will continue to be locally based to cover two key NBA markets.
  • Ethan Sherwood Strauss, in writing on ESPN.com and TrueHoop Network over the last four years, has established a unique and independent voice. He weighs in on some of the most sensitive issues of the NBA and the Golden State Warriors. Based in Oakland, Strauss will continue to cover the Warriors and the league for ESPN.com. Prior to ESPN, he covered politics for Salon.com and worked for the NBA. Strauss graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Royce Young is the founder and editor of the TrueHoop Network's charter member: DailyThunder.com. He has been a leading voice covering the Thunder since the team arrived in 2008, and now will continue covering the team for ESPN.com. Most recently, Young spent the last three years covering the NBA for CBSSports.com and had previously written for The New York Times and SLAM Magazine. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma.

 

No good deed goes unpunished

May, 27, 2014
May 27
11:08
AM ET
Young By Royce Young
ESPN.com
Archive
Scott BrooksRonald Martinez/Getty Images
The order of operations in assigning blame following a Thunder loss typically goes something like this:

1. Scott Brooks
2. Scott Brooks
3. Russell Westbrook
4. Scott Brooks
5. Kendrick Perkins
6. Sam Presti trading James Harden
874. Kevin Durant

Since winning NBA Coach of the Year in 2010 after leading a group of 20-year-olds to 50 wins and a postseason berth, Brooks has steadily seen his reputation drained to a punch line. He's ripped for his commitment to veterans such as Perkins and Derek Fisher. He's ripped for the Thunder's frustratingly simple offense. He's ripped for not getting more out of two outrageously talented superstars.

But I can't shake what Durant said during his MVP speech.

"I've never met anybody like you, so selfless," Durant said to Brooks. "You don't take the credit for nothing, even though you deserve all of it."

Take Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs. The Thunder stormed their way to an emotional 106-97 win, and the prevailing storyline was Serge Ibaka's return (and rightfully so). They appeared fixed and whole again. But within that was Brooks' shrewd move to add slashing guard Reggie Jackson to the starting five, putting more defensive pressure on the Spurs, opening up weakside options and more driving opportunities for Westbrook and Durant.

Barely went noticed.

Maybe the biggest criticism Brooks has faced in his five-plus seasons as coach is his staunch loyalty to his starting five, resisting change even when evidence suggests an adjustment may be in order. The Thunder have enjoyed remarkable consistency with their starting five since acquiring Perkins, trotting out that lineup 137 times in 165 games before this season.

This season was different. With Westbrook recovering from knee surgery and a couple of injuries to Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, Brooks was forced to tip off 55 games without his favorite five.

Maybe because of it, Brooks' mind opened more to the idea of switching up his starters. As the Thunder headed to Memphis down 3-2 to the Grizzlies in Round 1, the storyline centered on Durant and the "Mr. Unreliable" nonsense. But Brooks tweaked his starting five, subbing the more offense-minded Caron Butler for Sefolosha. The Thunder played their two best offensive games of the series and finished the Grizzlies in seven games.

Against the Clippers in Round 2, Brooks went back to his traditional starting lineup, and stuck with it despite building criticism, especially after a disastrous Game 1 loss. But as the Thunder advanced in six games, that group was maybe the Thunder's best combination for the series, posting a net rating of plus-11.1 in 77 minutes.

Against the Spurs, Brooks was again forced to make a change, but not out of choice. Ibaka was out, and Brooks tabbed steady veteran Nick Collison to replace him. The lineup was an abject disaster the first two games, as Collison, Perkins and Sefolosha combined to score nine points in San Antonio. With the Thunder’s backs to the wall down 2-0, Brooks was handed an obvious alteration. Ibaka was back, but he resisted the urge to just pencil in the status quo, instead opting for Jackson.

"It's a major decision," Brooks said Monday on switching his starting five. "We've been successful. I get knocked as a coach that we don't make changes. ... We've won a lot of games [with that starting five]. But there's times that we have to change in a series. I think our guys have adjusted well the last two times we've done it. We might have to do it again."

Not only was the new starting five electric (150.4 points per 100 possessions), but Brooks handed mainstay Sefolosha a DNP-CD. How's that for bold?

Brooks definitely has his faults, though. The Thunder sometimes appear like a team that's just winging it, trying to get by on raw talent, rather than having any semblance of a plan. The offense often teeters between best-in-the-league and oh-my-goodness-what-are-they-doing. Their half-court attack dissolves into a mushy mess, and the defense is maddeningly inconsistent. Many of their big shots come in transition or as Hail Marys off broken plays. And if well-conceived stuff is being drawn up in the huddle, it rarely seems to make it onto the floor after a timeout.

Durant and Westbrook get lost in their own games at times as Brooks extends a lengthy leash without much accountability. The rotations can be head-scratching and the veteran loyalty confusing. And Brooks does himself no favors with his comically empty "miked up" segments on the bench or his bland media sessions that leave you wondering if it's a tactical diversion or if he just doesn't know how to answer a question.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiOKC has been a big success under Scott Brooks, but does Kevin Durant need more?
When the Thunder win, it's because Westbrook and Durant are that good. When they lose, it's because Brooks isn't. It's the plight of a coach, especially one with superstars, forced to accept responsibility while rarely getting to share in the glory. Coaches don't get credit when a team does what it's supposed to. It's when a team overachieves and surprises that we take notice. And then we build them up just to tear them back down. Let's see how everyone feels about Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens and Terry Stotts in a few seasons.

Brooks isn't deaf to the criticism, but he also isn't all that bothered by it. The Thunder have experienced success under him -- five straight postseason appearances, three of the past four conference finals and one NBA Finals trip with a core roster that still isn't older than 25.

Durant is the Thunder, the heart of the franchise who has defined the culture with his work ethic, character and humility. But Brooks has cultivated and fostered that environment. He's the Walter White of locker room chemistry, concocting what might be the tightest roster in the league. His players play for him, and most important, his superstar loves him.

Brooks has stretched this postseason, and his big moves have resulted in big wins. Still, even when Brooks makes an effective change, the focus is often about how he was two games late with it. Heck, he was two years late in benching Perkins against the Heat, and Thunder fans still haven't forgiven him for it.

But he has won a lot of games. He's overseen the development of a number of incredibly talented young players such as Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Jackson and Steven Adams. Presti, the general manager, has drafted some players for Brooks to work with, but they've also entered into a setting keen on building them. Brooks reinforces positives and basically lives on the message that playing hard can cover most mistakes. The Thunder have a tangible culture that a lot of teams are trying to copy, and a lot of it starts with the coach.

The question is, though, has he taken the Thunder as far as he can? There's a parallel some have drawn between Doug Collins and Brooks, with Durant needing his Phil Jackson to get to that next level. When you have a transformative player like Durant, you can’t waste him. Not even for a year. The time is always now, and the seat is always hot. Erik Spoelstra felt it and then some before LeBron bailed him out in Boston in Game 6. You don't start getting credit until the job is done. It's not fair; it's just reality.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 27, 2014
May 27
10:58
AM ET
Thorpe By David Thorpe
ESPN.com
Archive
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:



Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

The diagnosis for Kevin Durant

May, 22, 2014
May 22
2:22
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
David Thorpe explains what's keeping Kevin Durant from scoring like he normally does.

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